Bryan Caplan  

Poverty: The Stages of Blame Applied

Caldwell on Hayek's "Consisten... Unemployment was 9.0% in May 1...
What do my stages of blame imply about real-world poverty policy?

1. As I've argued in detail here, poor healthy adults in the First World are largely undeserving.  Indeed, few are even objectively poor; just look at the many luxuries the American poor typically enjoy

2. People who used to be healthy adults in the First World are also largely undeserving.  As long as they were healthy enough to work for a couples of decades, the vast majority could have easily saved enough (or purchased enough insurance, annuities, etc.) to protect themselves from unemployment, accidents, sickness, old age, and other perennial troubles.

3. Genuinely poor children in the First World are deserving.  But the people who bear primary moral responsible for their plight are their parents, not strangers.  "Don't have children until you are ready to provide for them" is a simple, effective way to greatly reduce the risk you and your children will live in poverty.

4. In the First World, people who develop severe health problems early in life are often deserving.  I say "early in life" for reasons explained in #2, above, and "often" because many people with severe health problems are self-supporting or can rely on their families for help.

5. Although #3 & #4 are not morally responsible for their plight, this hardly implies that total strangers are morally responsible.  So the strong duties to "cease and remedy" don't apply.   To make even a plausible case for forcing strangers to help them, you have to show that the benefits heavily outweigh the costs.  This is harder than it sounds; see e.g. small estimates of the effect of health care on health outcomes.

6. Unlike First Worlders, poor Third Worlders - adults as well as children - are usually deserving.  Why?  Because most will remain absolutely poor even if they are models of bourgeois virtue.

7. Third World poverty exists for multiple morally blameworthy reasons.  The fact remains, however, that most of the Third World's poor could escape poverty if First World governments respected their basic human right to sell their labor to willing First World employers. 

8. First Worlders who support immigration restrictions are therefore morally responsible for Third World poverty, and are obliged to cease their support for immigration restrictions and remedy the harm they have done.

9. This does not mean, however, the First Worlders are collectively morally responsible for Third World poverty.  While most First Worlders support the status quo or worse, a sizable minority are politically inactive or even oppose immigration restrictions.  Forcing the latter group to help the Third World poor (e.g. via foreign aid) is unjustified unless the benefits heavily outweigh the costs, which they probably don't.

In sum: The stages of blame, combined with basic facts about poverty, are deeply consistent with a radical libertarian critique of the status quo.  Modern social democracies force their citizens to help their countrymen even though the latter are largely undeserving - and often not really poor.  The most that could be justified is a rump welfare state that helps poor children and people who develop severe health problems early in life.   At the same time, social democracies deliberately and massively increase global poverty by banning employment contracts between citizens and foreigners. 

Like it or not, much-maligned U.S. Gilded Age poverty policies - minimal government assistance combined with near-open borders - were close to ideal.  And the broadly-defined poverty policies of much-beloved post-war social democracies are morally perverse - enforcing absurdly inflated moral duties toward poor citizens while slandering poor foreigners as criminals for using the most realistic strategy they have to avoid poverty: getting a job in the First World.

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COMMENTS (25 to date)
Matt_S writes:


I posed a question about proportionality on your last post. I wanted to know if you’ve accounted for proportionality. In other words, even when people are responsible for their plight (teenager doesn’t wear seatbelt, dies in auto accident), they may not deserve a disproportionate result (death).

You appear to address that here by noting that American poor people aren’t really that poor. However, you use world standards for the comparison. Why is a world standard superior to a domestic idea of what qualifies as a disproportionate hardship? If it’s because we cannot have both domestic welfare and open borders and therefore it matters whether the American poor are worse off than the Third World poor, that’s a worthy comparison. But haven’t you outlined a guest worker program that would get around that?

And, in that case, is it really proper to determine whether or not poverty is a proportional price for bad decisions by comparing the poor to the rest of the world? Couldn’t, say, two people come to very different conclusions about how much a hardship American poverty is, and result in one person deciding the poor are not deserving of their fate and someone else deciding they are?

Go back far enough in history and our poorest would live like kings by comparison. But we toggle our idea of what a hardship is based on our surroundings. Is that inappropriate in deciding whether the poor deserve their fate for their bad decisions?

Jacob A. Geller writes:


I would like to see you integrate the Wolfers Equation into this discussion of First- vs. Third-World poverty.

You've argued that happiness largely flattens out above $30k, and that even large increases (and by extension, decreases) in income have little or no effect on happiness.

But it's also true that (in the Wolfers data) happiness spikes between $0k and $30k, suggesting that even small increases in Third World incomes would be morally worth even large decreases in First World incomes.

Doesn't this all suggest that a certain amount of redistribution from First World to Third World is morally permissible and praiseworthy, at least on the margin?

On the margin I see immigration restrictions as mattering quite a lot, but even in a world of open borders (which will not be rapidly forthcoming) there would (will?) still be massive global inequality, probably for an extended period of time.

Are your stages of blame, combined with the basic facts about poverty, plus the Wolfers Equation, consistent with a radical libertarian critique of the status quo? Is the free movement of capital, goods and labor "enough," or are middle-class First-Worlders grasping in vain for marginal income gains that won't buy them very much (if any) additional happiness? If so, is there room here for state-sponsored redistribution?

(Assume for now that such redistribution works -- whether foreign aid "works" in practice is a separate issue. I'm asking about your opinion conditional on the hypothetical possibility that income redistribution from Global Rich to Global Poor could work.)


Pajser writes:

My standard criticism is enough for this:

(1) Idea that immigration helps to poor people in general case is wrong. Example is: what happens to poor Tanzanian villagers when their medical doctor immigrate to US and istead of treating malaria starts assisting plastic surgeries? They die - just that happens far from eyes of Americans. As people who emigrate to rich countries are in most cases better educated, younger, more ambitions, more talented than those who stay, it appears that in most cases freedom of migration hurts citizens of the poor countries. We cannot conclude that completely open borders are generally good policy for alleviation of world poverty.

(2) Helping deserving people from First and Third world is still justified. Even more - if some people are born wealthier than other people - it is not only inconvinient. It is unjust - because difference in wealth is based on property; and property is not something neutral; property is violent restriction of freedom of other people. Such restriction requires serious justification - and in the case of people who are born poor - such justification doesn't exist.

(3) If one doesn't like policy of his country he should leave. Only then he is not responsible any more. It is like membership in the criminal gang; it is not enough that you complain, you must leave the gang.

Christopher Chang writes:

By giving its citizens great freedom of exit and moving international norms against restrictions on such freedom (compare E. European emigration policies before and after Cold War defeat by US-led opposition), official US government policy is already morally blameless along the dimension Bryan thinks it's faulty on. (This isn't to say that the US government doesn't have other screwed-up policies, of course.) Any American who wants to help foreign poor people is already free to travel abroad to do so (and even give up their US citizenship, if they're that unhappy with how US laws are set up); if they're too lazy to either do that or make a broadly convincing case for loosening migration restrictions, that's their own problem[1].

I've stated before, and will repeat now, that when it comes to changing policy, I believe it's wisest to prioritize countries where policy is not already more liberal than the public wants[2]. I've given Australia and Canada as examples of "nations of immigrants" where existing practice and politics are NOT nearly as poisoned as they are in the US and some European countries, and others have identified Sweden as a wealthy country with unusually xenophilic (or at least non-xenophobic) citizens. If you focus on places like that, and push for forward-looking policies that balance citizen and immigrant interests and help build those countries up into showcases other countries want to copy, I think you'll have a far better chance of having a meaningful and lasting positive impact on the world than if you continue failing to rein in your counterproductive instinct to complain about the US.

[1] In e.g. the employment case, if it isn't reasonable for you to set up business in the poor folks' country of residence, the solution is for both you and your employees to move to a third country with a permissive immigration policy. I realize a few people will disagree, but I see this as morally superior to stripping away a desired form of right of association, and it points to a sequence of useful and achievable goals that open borders activists can pursue (improve the "third country" choices).
[2] Or, in Singapore's case, where the government had earned enough trust from the people to experiment with unpopular technocratic policies without too much dissent. This is rare.

Curtis L. writes:

As much as I can appreciate broaching difficult (controversial?) subjects in an attempt to help, this latest post seems a bit less genuine than the last.

If our experience with the poor is purely academic, something like this post could result. Until our experience with poverty is personal and experienced, we will never get to the truth.

Mrs. Davis writes:

[Comment removed for policy violation, including repeated comment submission under false email addresses. Email the to request restoring this comment and your comment privileges. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

Jeff writes:
First Worlders who support immigration restrictions are therefore morally responsible for Third World poverty, and are obliged to cease their support for immigration restrictions and remedy the harm they have done.

Aren't the corrupt, kleptocratic regimes running the third world a lot more morally culpable than first worlders who are, as far as I can tell, exercising territorial sovereignty in the same manner that virtually everyone, everywhere does?

David Rickard writes:

[Comment removed for rudeness. --Econlib Ed.]

Richard writes:

I think the deserving/undeserving terminology is confusing. When Bryan talks about the "deserving poor," a natural inference is that he means "people who deserve to be poor." Bu apparently he intends the exact opposite.

How about blameworthy vs. blameless instead?

Massimo writes:

What analytical framework suggests that Caplan's values and judgements have more truth than competing ones?

I have read Caplan extensively. I can summarize his core philosophy, but it seems to lack underlying logic and consistency:

- Merit of individuals: Absolute Yes! Immigration, children of bad parents, etc.
- Merit of ethnicities: Absolute No! People have absolute zero grounds to protest the permanent death of their culture, societies, or demographics.

It is a simple corollary from these values that you shouldn't love or provide for your own children or family more than other children or families. Caplan makes an exception on the basis that humans are biologically wired to care for our own children more. Yet we are similarly biologically wired to love our own ethnic groups or cultures more.

Caplan just punts on this type of inconsistency and continues shouting his perspective from the roof tops.

Mike H writes:


The difference is that giving your children gifts to give them better opportunities does not violate what we are morally allowed to do with our property. It might be better in some respects to give them out equally, but this is a personal choice.

It's not immoral for one to love his own ethnic group and to try to give them opportunities (i.e. jobs) over other ethnic groups, but it does become immoral when you physically stop other groups from peacefully expressing their own property and similar preferences.

It is morally acceptable to pay for a standardized testing class for your child, but it is not morally acceptable to obtain the answers for him.

You can give similar help to people in your group. The problem comes when you change the rules to benefit your kids or your group. Both situations are entirely consistent with the libertarian philosophy.

Tiago writes:


I am a great admirer, but I don't see any benefit in talking about "blame". It is a loaded word. One could argue that too many welfare provision jeopardizes the incentives to productivity, in which case accepting that some people live greater relative poverty is the price to pay for a better society. I don't that it is true, but is something worth discussing.

On the other hand, talking about "blame" gives an idea of social reprisal. Blaming is supposed to create shame on the blamed and despise from the people who are doing the blaming. Why would we want people that for some reason cannot take advantage of the benefits of having a more structure life to feel shame on top of all the things they are missing? I hardly thing that shame is the thing that will make them come around. Why would we want to despise them?

Massimo writes:

@Mike H

"It's not immoral for one to love his own ethnic group and to try to give them opportunities (i.e. jobs) over other ethnic groups"

This is what Caplan calls "nationalism" and he is strictly against it. Caplan is against any type of coordinated ethnic group preference. One of the big arguments against mass immigration is it leads to the permanent end of certain ethnic groups, and Caplan clearly states that objection has zero validity.

labradog writes:

What is the nature of the minimum moral responsibility that any one person has for the well-being of another by virtue of shared humanity?

Or does that not exist? Is "I am my brother's keeper" obsolete?

Finch writes:

> What is the nature of the minimum moral
> responsibility that any one person has for the
> well-being of another by virtue of shared
> humanity?

It has to be close to zero, otherwise as world population rises you are increasingly compelled to work for other people and not yourself. You need to make assumptions about how your obligation drops off with distance (measured however you choose to do so) or you reach absurd conclusions.

David C writes:

I think how much benefits should outweigh the costs is a matter of philosophy; they should not necessarily heavily outweigh the costs.

Conservative beliefs are even worse than you describe. They support restrictions, oppose targeted help for first world poor, but support huge spending for the elderly.

Liberal beliefs are wholly different than you describe but still incorrect. They support immigration and welfare for the poor but then oppose companies who provide jobs to third world poor.

Mike H writes:


It depends on how you coordinate.

If you aggregate the private property of your fellow ethnic group and build an enclave to keep other ethnic groups out, that's morally justifiable (if a bit jerky).

If instead you use a vote and violent force to keep certain ethnicities away from you and prevent them from interacting peacefully with other people who would rather work with them, then that is morally reprehensible.

Pajser writes:

If people starve to death around John's house, and John doesn't help - it is not that he only does not help. John's role is much more active, he uses violence to prevent starving people from eating food from his refrigerator. It requires stronger justification than simply "not helping".

vikingvista writes:

"he uses violence to prevent starving people from eating food from his refrigerator"

And a woman uses violence to fend off a rapist. If she only knew that she didn't have a property right to her own flesh, she wouldn't act so aggressively.

Sure, John is sleeping peacefully as your "victim" smashes through the fence John peacefully built, breaks down the door John peacefully installed, stumbles uninvited through the home John has peacefully maintained, whips open the refrigerator John peacefully labored to purchase, and hungrily grabs at the food John had the foresight to peacefully accumulate.

But John is the violent one.

I guess in the communist vision, not only is resistance futile, it's an unjustified violent imposition.

Ghost of Christmas Past writes:

"8. First Worlders who support immigration restrictions are therefore morally responsible for Third World poverty..."

Really, Professor Caplan? Don't you remember that you conceded that isn't true three-and-a-half years ago?

Third World poverty is generally said to be caused by "bad institutions" which are in turn mostly consequences of the low average IQ's and future-orientations of the people in the Third World. Bad institutions (or good ones) in some countries are not caused by other countries' immigration rules.

Thanks to diminishing marginal returns, mass migration from poor countries to rich ones would not make any large number of migrants rich. Since there is no great demand for low-skilled labor in rich countries (low wages offered prove low demand) mass migration would simply produce mass unemployment in destination countries, which would mean either mass welfare dependency or mass crime (or both, since the devil makes work for idle hands).

Ethan writes:

Ghost of Christmas Past - You seem to be applying the "lump of labor" belief. There is not a fixed number of jobs, markets are dynamic, and employers make adjustments based on relative costs of available alternatives. A significant change in the supply of labor would likely lead to changes in the demand for and use of labor.

Chris Wegener writes:

I of course "blame" the unemployed first worlder who is not working, because no job, at any rate of pay, exists for them.

How dare they not go out and start their own business supplying a service or product that no one wants and no one will buy?

Perhaps they should just slink off into a corner and die without disturbing those who at the moment have employment?

What, we do not allow most people to die if they have no money? Then the choice is that business need to pay or the government ("We the people") needs to pay. Those are the only two options.

You can argue the immorality of others taking from you without your consent all you want, but the only option available is to move to a country that does not tax it's people.

No, you want the luxuries available by living in America without spending a dime of your own money to support it. That is truly "blame worthy."

Ghost of Christmas Past writes:

Ethan, my friend, Caplan's plan to alleviate poverty by mass migration fails at the margin, not because of any lump-of-labor fallacy.

Averaging by country, 6 out of 7 people in the world are poor (1/7 rich). Suppose half the poor people migrate to rich countries (Caplan's seeming estimate based on his references to Michael Clemens' papers and so-forth). According to Caplan the migrants will thereby become "rich." Please, think for a second. Such migration would quadruple the populations of the rich countries (1/7 + 3/7 = 4/7). You don't have to be a "lump of labor fallacy" enthusiast to ask, how will all those people find jobs over any useful timeframe? All the janitorial and stoop-labor jobs in the rich countries will be filled by the first few immigrants to arrive. We know empirically there is low demand for low-skilled labor in rich countries because such jobs command only very low wages. Since labor is complementary to capital and migrants will bring no industrial capital or land with them, it will take a long time to build up much new demand for low-skill/low-wage immigrant labor in rich countries.* Caplan's "place premium" would evaporate within weeks of opening the borders because of the downward pressure on wages caused by increased labor supply. Caplan assumes a flat or even upward-sloping demand curve!

A correct analysis of the situation would recognize that the demand curve for labor slopes downwards; that shifting it out horizontally takes time and capital; and therefore mass migration would immediately reveal diminishing marginal returns (measured by wage premium adjusted for local cost-of-living) to migrants! No rational analyst could believe that mass migration would alleviate Third World poverty over any short timeframe.

*Presumably some of the immigrants could be employed to police the rest in their favelas, but overall that would be a negative-productivity industry paid-for by taxes on non-migrants.

caryatis writes:

Pajser, why should the proximity to "John's house" matter? Aren't we all using the violence of the state to keep what we have?

Pajser writes:

Caryatis, you are right, the citizens protect their goods from foreigners on the same way. Intended point of the post was to show that it is not that "we do not help" but "we actively prevent." (Again, it might be justified, but justification is harder than for "not helping.")

I believe proximity (physical and organizational) still matters a little. It is subjectively harder to harm closer beings. And if it is harder, and it is nevertheless done, it is aggravating circumstance.

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